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Nov 4, 2013

The Promised Land

Rating:

It's been a busy book-buying fortnight for Manchester United fans, since the past couple of weeks has seen the release of not one but two essential purchases. The first of these, Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiography, has set records for sales in an opening week; the second, and no less compelling a read, is "The Promised Land" by Daniel Harris.

Harris, a football journalist and longtime Manchester United fan, has taken on a considerable challenge: to tell the tale, both fully and beautifully, of Manchester United's 1999 Treble season. It's a tough task for several reasons, and chiefly that it's hard to add anything fresh to a story that so many supporters already know so well.

Yet Harris manages it; his book is a triumph of both process and prose. He chooses to write up each match of that season with forensic detail, capturing each crucial passage of play, so that the temptation is to go straight to YouTube and revisit each moment. His writing is wry, witty and original; David Beckham doesn't bend the ball into the net, he "astonishes" it; while Harris' scorn for footballers who spend more time on their image than their game leads him to coin the phrase "the ftbllr generation."

Yet this is far, far more than a well-woven collage of match reports and smartly crafted asides. The greatest strength of this book is in its character studies. Harris carefully explains how a cast almost as diverse as Marvel's Avengers -- the calypso-carefree Dwight Yorke, the selfless Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer, the silently artful Paul Scholes, the volcanic Roy Keane -- came together in successful pursuit of the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League. That season was a powerful ode to teamwork, one where each member of the squad -- even those who had just arrived, like Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist -- contributed hugely to an unprecedented run.

In the Premier League, they fought past an Arsenal team inspired by Dennis Bergkamp, a Chelsea team inspired by Gianfranco Zola, as well as David O'Leary's Leeds United. In the FA Cup, they defeated Newcastle and Liverpool, as well as Arsenal and Chelsea again. Meanwhile, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich were all subdued or overcome in Europe. Few if any clubs have amassed so many bragging rights in the course of 12 months.

Of course, at the heart of all this was Sir Alex Ferguson, whose uniquely brilliant man-management brought the best from his players: even those, like Teddy Sheringham, who were kept waiting in the wings much of the season. Ferguson's greatest gifts to his team were to imbue them with the rarest winning mentality, based itself upon an unending loyalty to each other. This is best expressed in the following section of Harris' work:

"David James recalls his experience of the culture [at Manchester United] through time spent away with England, and how the United players would police themselves, supporting each other to the fullest extent. 'All these hours of sitting around...and not once did any United player ever reveal anything to me about their team-mates, their dressing room or their manager. In an industry renowned for its gossip I find that extraordinary...Even when the media reported chaos in the United dressing room...there were no comments from the United boys...It all contributed to that sense of separation: there were United players, and then there was the rest of us."

This, notes Harris in his superb account, "all of this, manifested on the pitch: outrageous perseverance, collective brilliance, improbable comebacks, late goals, and intimidating unity. That's how the Treble happened."

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